When it comes to finding a great mobile plan, these days you’re spoilt for choice. Sure, there’s only the three physical mobile networks covering the width and breadth of the country (a fourth, 5G-only network is in development). But thanks to a very active and competitive market full of smaller providers with access to those networks, it’s easy to find the perfect plan. Regardless of your budget and whether you’re a power user or just take the occasional call, there’s something for everyone.
What is a mobile carrier?
It’s an expensive thing, setting up a mobile phone network. While a wired phone network has to worry about running miles of cables, a mobile network has to come up with cell towers, phone exchanges, data centres and all the cabling to connect them all around the country, making mobile phone use seamless and reliable.
The networks everyone uses are owned and operated by three companies – Telstra, Optus and Vodafone (with Optus and Vodafone collaborating on many of the physical cell towers they use). The way things are set up in Australia, it’s only those three companies that can be considered actual mobile “carriers.” In other words, they provide the actual infrastructure that makes it all possible.
So what about all those other mobile brands you see around? Well, they’re referred to as “MVNOs” – Mobile Virtual Network Operators. They buy access to and capacity on one of the big three networks, and then sell a mobile service to customers that’s tailored for whatever market they’re hoping to attract.
The ease with which a company can become an MVNO has led to fierce competition in the marketplace. In turn, that has led to cheaper prices across the board. Unlimited-call plans, unheard-of only a few years ago, are now commonplace. Data allowances get larger, and even perks like free overseas calls are thrown in to try to get your business. The customer is very much the winner in the modern Australian mobile market.
Last audited 16 May 2021
The history of Australian mobile carriers
Mobile phone services had a slow and expensive start in Australia, and have come a long way in the three decades since. It was February 1987 when the first cellular mobile network was switched on and the first call was made. However, access to the network (run by Telecom Australia, later to become Telstra) cost $600 per year before you even made any calls. That is, if you could find anyone to call in the first place! Mobilenet, as it was known, was day one of what would become the largest mobile network in Australia.
Mobile phones had existed before that – as far back as 1981, when Telecom sold access to its “007” network. It used only three towers, and the phones were so heavy they could only be installed in a car. For most people it was like something out of a Bond movie rather than any hint of the future. The phones cost over $5000, were the size of a briefcase and weighed over 14 kilograms.
The cellular system was a big improvement, but it had the disadvantage of being easily listened in on (much to the chagrin of certain politicians). Hence, when digital networks became available a few years later, people were quick to switch over. It’s those digital networks – run by Telstra, Optus and later Vodafone – that formed the basis of the networks we use today. But technology’s come a long way since then. We now have smaller, faster and smarter phones that are basically handheld computers offering super-fast 4G data and high-quality voice.
Mobile carriers in Australia today
There’s now a choice of nearly 50 mobile providers in the Australian market. That’s an astonishing level of choice, made all the more appealing due to the fact they all use one of three extremely high-quality networks. You can go to one of the “big three” directly for your mobile service, yet millions of consumers have opted to go with one of the third-party providers – because that’s where innovation happens in terms of value.
No matter your needs, you can find a provider that will give you what you want – unlimited calls, free international calls, huge data allowances, unlimited text and video messaging, low monthly charges or long-expiry prepaid services.
It took quite a few years for mobile carriers to go from being uniformly expensive to offering so much for so little. The consumer is very much the winner as a result.
Nothing but a ‘G’ thang
3G, 4G, 5G: What do all these ‘Gs’ mean for me?
While it’s never been a truly official way of classifying mobile phone services, the use of a “G” (standing for “generation”) has become almost routine when both mobile providers and phone manufacturers talk about their products. It’s a popular system because it’s easy to understand – the higher the number, the more feature-packed and speedy a phone or network is. Simple.
The classifications have got more to do with how data is handled over the network than actual phone calls (for example, almost all 4G phones actually connect voice phone calls using the 3G network) each generation brings with it some new features that make it very desirable to get yourself the latest and freshest “G” you possibly can. In Australia, the old 2G networks (originally referred to as “GSM”) have been shut down now, and old mobile phones that used the 2G network will no longer work at all in Australia. 3G is still around and in extensive use – especially by MVNOs, as it’s cheaper – while 4G is the current best tech you’ll find. 4G’s been refined and made faster over the years, to the point where it’s capable of data speeds many times that of the NBN – but even 4G is about to be left in the dust by the new G on the block – 5G.
Is 5G the answer to home broadband?
The latest and most advanced of the mobile phone systems, 5G promises to deliver absolutely unprecedented data speeds, the ability for many, many more devices to share cell towers at the same time (no more congestion at the footy!) and lower latency (meaning it’ll be usable for online gaming). All these advances have been tested in labs in in limited field trials – Australia’s big telcos are rolling out small 5G test networks already. But the 5G spec is still being finalised, and while 5G devices will start to appear later in 2019, the full feature set and design for 5G won’t be finished until 2020.
Before it’s useful on a large scale, you’ll need to be able to actually buy a 5G phone handset or data modem, and you’ll need a network to connect to – something that’s going to roll out over the course of many years. If you’re living in one of the big capital cities, you’ll likely get the first real access to 5G – so the question is, can it be used as a high-speed replacement for the NBN?
The answer is that at this stage, we don’t know. In theory, 5G could deliver blazingly fast and responsive home broadband. But how the networks will cope with millions of users all fighting for limited bandwidth remains to be seen.
What About Unlimited Data on Australian Mobiles?
We’re used to getting broadband plans at home with unlimited data – so we should be able to get the same for our mobiles, right? Well, not exactly. The problem is a simple one – even on Australia’s very capable and powerful 4G networks, there’s only a finite amount of data bandwidth on any cell tower at any time that has to be shared between everyone. If data was made truly unlimited, you can imagine the result – thousands of people streaming Game of Thrones on their mobile phones as soon as a new episode arrived, and the entire network grinding to a slow crawl as a result! Those data limits make us think more carefully about how we use this shared resource.
But times are changing. Data limits are getting bigger – much bigger – and there are even some plans being marketed as having “unlimited” data. What they actually offer, though is still somewhat limiting in most cases, with your data rate slowed down to a crawl when you hit a certain limit. Telstra, though, does offer a true unlimited data plan – at a price. You can only get it when buying a new phone, and it’ll cost you a staggering $199 per month. But for the money, you get a truly unlimited data service on what is arguably the fastest 4G network in Australia.
Top Mobile Providers
Easily able to boast the largest mobile network in Australia – and certainly the one with the best coverage in remote areas – Telstra is the gold standard for mobile carriers, always supporting the technologies found on the latest smartphones. Once thought of as expensive, these days they offer plans for all usage patterns and budgets, combining value with full access to their advanced 4G network.
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Targeting those who are actively out and about on the weekend, Boost offers customers bonus generous data and unlimited calls on the Telstra 4G network. The “local Netflix” has a superb library of films as well as some brilliant TV you can’t see anywhere else – like the latest shows from US network Showtime. Stan also produces its own shows, including the excellent TV series version of Romper Stomper, Wolf Creek, and the hilarious comedy series No Activity.
With an expanded new network using cutting-edge technology, Vodafone is a great choice for those after a fast, high quality mobile service with generous data limits.
Great prices, unlimited calls – and free access to their own sports streaming service included into the bargain – makes Ovo a new player to keep an eye on.
Well known for its super-cheap unlimited talk and text plans, Vaya makes use of Optus’s 4G Plus network to make sure your calls are clear and your data fast.
On top of their long experience of providing service to the most far-flung areas of the country, Southern Phone provides great data options running on the unequalled Telstra network — best of all, you can avail of them with painless no-contract deals.
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Yomojo’s newly revamped mobile lineup takes care of the basics and more. With the exception of the cheapest plan, their mobile deals are equipped with unlimited talk and text plus substantial data allowance for your moderate to heavy data needs with no lock-in contract. Even better, they offer family bundles that are bound to get you huge savings in the long run.
Read Yomojo Mobile Review
Hello’s range of prepaid plans also takes into account those who just want to call and text within Australia – there’s plenty of options bundling data, international calls or special rates so you can grab the plan that’s exactly suited to your needs. It’s also easy to get hold of a Hello SIM – you can find them in almost any major store, or order one online and have it expressed to you free of charge.
What will the future of mobiles in Australia look like?
5G, another game-changing innovation, is just around the corner. Currently being tested internally by the big three networks, it’ll ramp up data access speeds so drastically that it’ll make the fastest NBN connection look like yesterday’s news.
Yet, we’re a fair way away from 5G right now – no phones on the market currently support it, after all. But when it arrives, it’s likely to shake up the industry once again. With just about everyone already offering unlimited calls and text, data limits will be an even more keenly fought point of difference than they are now. Watch this space!